The Secret Garden

Whimsy and Delight Temper a
Harsh Dose of Victorian Reality

Reviewed by Mary Alderson

The Secret Garden is set at the end of the Victorian era, as the Edwardian era was beginning. It was a time when the saying “Children should be seen and not heard” was widely used. Parents felt no responsibility in raising their youngsters – nannies and housekeepers were employed for that purpose. And certainly, love and affection were never demonstrated.

It was a sad world for many children, and today’s kids would certainly not recognize it. But the message in The Secret Garden comes through – despite the rather nasty and somber world created by adults, children can prevail and make their own fun with a little imagination and a lot of fresh air. This story is now on stage at the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, part of the Shaw Festival.

Ten-year-old Mary Lennox is sent to live with her uncle after she is orphaned. The uncle is rarely present and the cold housekeeper Mrs. Medlock offers no solace. Mary discovers a fenced-in, locked garden, all overgrown with weeds. It is her refuge and the caring maid, Martha, has her younger brother Dickon bring Mary a trowel and spade. As well, the gardener Ben Weatherstone kindly offers to help her plant and grow the garden. Eventually Mary discovers her bed-ridden cousin, Colin. There is a very sad reason Colin is hidden away, and a mystery about the locked garden. Eventually, Mary, Dickon and Colin figure out the unhappy past. They also use their imaginations and singing to brighten their world.

Gabriella Sundar Singh is excellent as Mary taking us on her journey from being a spoiled brat who demanded whatever she wanted from the servants, to a thoughtful and smart little girl. Similarly, Gryphyn Karimloo as the sickly, rude Colin who is tortured by nightmares, develops into a clever child able with insight. Drew Plummer as Dickon is a delight, demonstrating charming child-like attributes. All three actors – and I am assuming they are all adults – perform brilliantly and believably as children.

Jacqueline Thair is perfect as Martha the maid, with a captivating Yorkshire accent, and David Adams is flawless as Ben, the kindly gardener. Sharry Flett’s cold Mrs. Medlock would cause you to shiver. David Alan Anderson skilfully plays two roles – Archibald Craven, Colin’s father who, in his own misery, is a cruel parent, and Dr. Craven, Archibald’s brother, the nasty doctor who forces Colin to stay in his bed. Patty Jamieson is wonderful as Mrs. Sowerby, the sympathetic mother of Martha and Dickon who recognizes the need for play. Special mention must go to Tama Martin who brings Robin to life: the bird realistically flies and flits around the stage, and you forget that Tama Martin is making it happen.

Various songs are interspersed into the story, many of them familiar children’s songs: “Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary”, “Scarborough Fair”, or “Blue Bells, Cockle Shells”. Other songs, listed as traditional are less familiar, but fit into the storytelling very well.

While The Secret Garden is intended to be a children’s show, there is plenty of interesting plot to pique the adults’ interest. There was a full house for the afternoon performance when I saw it in June, and more than 50 percent were children, all fidgeting, squealing, and giggling before the show began. But once the story unfolded, the children were silent and very attentive, which certainly says something for this stage adaption and the excellent acting.

This show emphasizes the need for imagination and whimsy in a child’s world. Getting in touch with nature and creating a fanciful space can cure the ailments of a child’s body and mind. Take the kids and grandkids to see this show, or just go on your own to remind yourself of the joys of childhood.

The Secret Garden continues in repertory at Royal George Theatre, The Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake until October 13. For tickets, visit or call 1-800-511-SHAW(7429).

Photo: Drew Plummer as Dickon, David Adams as Ben Weatherstaff, Gryphyn Karimloo as Colin and Gabriella Sundar Singh as Mary in The Secret Garden. Photo by Michael Cooper.

The Secret Garden
A Play with Songs
Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Adapted for the Stage by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli
Directed by Jay Turvey
Musical Direction by Ryan deSouza
Performed by David Adams, David Alan Anderson, Sharry Flett, Patty Jamieson, Gryphyn Karimloo, Tama Martin, Drew Plummer, Gabriella Sundar Singh and Jacqueline Thair.
Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON
May 31 to October 13, 2024
Reviewed by Mary Alderson


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